As a Gen Xer who grew up under Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, I will never forget the day I met President Bush. It was the summer of 1991. I was a first-year law clerk at a law firm in Washington, D.C. We were invited to an event in honor of then-Office of Personnel Management Director Constance E. Newman (the first African-American woman to hold that post). I was excited because I had met then-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp during the 1988 campaign and had worked for Sen. Pete Wilson in the summer of 1989. I was very interested in the Republican Party and politics.
The event where I met Bush was held at the ornate Organization of American States building on 17th Street and Constitution Avenue, one of the most beautiful venues in Washington to this day.
It was a sunny, beautiful day, I will never forget.
In walked the president and first lady Barbara Bush. That’s when fate stepped in. The senior partner, my mentor, whispered to me, "Go over and introduce yourself to the president." I was a bit terrified because I was young, black and female, and there were not many people in the room that day who looked like me, besides, of course, Newman, the honoree.
This was 1991, and women did not do then the things we can so easily do now in social settings. Ladies were not forward; we waited our turn. But on this day, I broke the rules at the urging of my trusted mentor. President Bush immediately focused on me, stretched out his hand, and smiled at me. “Hello there,” he said. “What is your name?”
Public office through personal connections
We exchanged pleasantries and then I asked, "Mr. President, what advice would you give a young woman like me on how to succeed in life? I think I want to go into politics someday and run for office."
He smiled, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Young lady, I don’t know a lot, but here is what I know for sure will help you succeed in whatever you do — write notes.” I was perplexed. I thought his response a bit strange. But I was intrigued.
He continued, “I want you to go out and buy some Crane stationery — and I want you to build a list of names every time you meet someone, and whenever they do something nice for you, or it's their birthday, or they lose a loved one, I want you to send a handwritten note. It will mean the world to them. And it will connect you to them for years. And one day if you decide to run for public office, or pursue public service, you will have a network of people you can turn to help take you where you want to go."
I smiled. I nodded. I promised him that I would do so. And for the past 27 years, I have built a Christmas list of thousands. I still write personal notes, send cards, and keep in touch the old-fashioned way that President Bush’s generation was raised on. I still have the ink pen he gave me from his pocket with the presidential seal.
I admired his love of country and family
As we reflect on his loss this week, I can tell you that it was he who inspired that very young black woman to want to be a public servant. A Republican at that. I admired his military service, his humility and his devotion to his country. I admired his gentle manner and his unparalleled diplomatic skills to build coalitions and partnerships during the Persian Gulf War. I admired his love of his country, but most of all, of his family.
The following year, I worked on his 1992 re-election campaign at the Republican National Committee. And although he did not win, his grace in defeat inspired me even more.
Now through the eyes of a seasoned woman who has worked in and covered national politics, that moment where I had the president’s undivided attention was priceless. Life changing. I took it all in. And it stuck with me.
In a world where we revere celebrity, lewdness and loudness, George H.W. Bush reminds us of a kinder, gentler America. That is why I have been such a vocal critic of the current Republican president. And the current tenor of our ugly partisan, divided politics and political discourse.
President George H.W. Bush was a true gentleman. And his philanthropic work was a quiet blessing to many, including the tens of millions of dollars that he and Barbara Bush raised for historically black colleges and universities, the United Negro College Fund and other such charities. His was the Republican Party I was proud to be part of. His was a life well-lived.
Each day, I try to govern myself as he would.
Sophia A. Nelson is a journalist and TV commentator. She is author of the book, “E Pluribus One: Reclaiming Our Founders’ Vision for a United America.” Follow her on Twitter: @IAmSophiaNelson
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Priceless moment with George H. W. Bush inspired me to become a Republican, public servant